The crowned gryphon.
It was a majestic beast. Terrible, but majestic. One of the apex predators of the lower regions of Mount Arkais. It sat atop the totem pole of power here, feared by all, kind to none but its own kin. An S-ranked threat that had felled thousands of adventurers over the decades. Its feathered wings beat on its back, carrying the body of a lion and the head of an eagle.
It wasn’t the largest monster around— roughly seven feet in length with a wingspan twice as wide— but it was the fastest in hundreds of miles. It wasn’t afraid of anything, because it knew it could always escape danger. So it flew in place, just below the clouds, overseeing the vast landscape of green.
Its domain. The land which it ruled. Nothing could overthrow the crowned gryphon from its throne. Nothing—
And it exploded. The crowned gryphon burst into nothing but feathers as a figure shot straight through it. It was two figures, actually. They zipped through the sky as the clouds parted behind them, moving together as one.
The first figure raised her head and looked back towards the falling feathers. Amelia blinked. “Oops. I think we hit a bird or something. Didn’t mean to do that.”
Shaking her head, she turned to the second figure. The blonde girl lying in her arms, carried through the sky. Noele. And in response, Noele said:
“Very insightful.” Amelia rolled her eyes as the so-called Noble Spellsword continued screaming in terror, without a hint of shame.
“SOMEONE SAVE ME—”
“I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”
“Noele,” I said sharply, and the blonde girl blinked, breaking out of her stupor. She looked up at me, lying on the ground as I rolled my eyes.
“We’re here,” I scoffed as I gestured towards our surroundings.
Noele scrambled to her feet and her eyes grew wide. Right before her was a steep fall. A sharp decline that descended a thousand feet leading to a rocky grave of despair at the bottom.
We were standing atop the peak of Mount Arkais. A sea of white expanded far and wide. Everywhere we looked, there was nothing but clouds. There were a few splashes of green interspersed between the clouds— windows peeking down to the forests below.
“W-we’re here?” Noele repeated after me. She spun around, staring at me, wide-eyed. “How did we get here so quickly? How many days has it been?”
“I jumped.” I shrugged. “And it’s only been about six hours.”
“Six… hours?!” Her jaw dropped.
“I know— it took a while. I wanted to get here faster, but you wouldn’t stop screaming and I thought you might puke all over me so I had to slow down. I also got lost for a little bit, but we’re here now.”
Noele went cross-eyed. I could tell that her mind was slowly processing this— like she’d left her thoughts all the way back at Windrip.
“Anyways,” I said as I turned around, “where’s this wise master sage dude at? I don’t see a shack anywhere around here.”
The blonde girl’s mouth hung open. She tried to work her jaw, but nothing came out. Finally, she slumped her shoulders and sighed.
“He should be in a cave somewhere in the middle of the mountain,” she said in a resigned voice. “You went too high up.”
“Oh, my mistake.” I took a step forward, picking up Noele. Her eyes grew round as I raised a foot over the ledge. “Just hold on—”
“Stop!” Noele grabbed me by the shoulders, and I paused. Raising her head, she met my gaze with terrified eyes. “Let’s just walk down, alright?”
I blinked, then I nodded and helped her to her feet. “Fine. We’ll walk.”
“Thank you,” the blonde girl breathed in relief.
We found a more gradual slope that led down Mount Arkais at the other side of the peak, and we started down a winding stone path. There was no snow here, which surprised me, considering how high up we were. If I had to guess, we were at least ten or fifteen miles above the base of the mountain. Maybe even twenty miles or more.
I swept my gaze over our surroundings— despite our altitude, I could still see a few monsters wandering about the area. A boulder rolled its way across a steep incline, cracked and glowing from the core. A giant white monkey walked up a hill on all fours as its children clung onto its back. A group of thin and long worms burrowed in and out of the earth, traveling through the rocky ground like dolphins leaping across the sea. They made whistling sounds that echoed in the distance, and I shook my head.
“Why would anyone want to live this high up, anyways?” I wondered aloud. “Is he a monk or something?”
Noele frowned. “A [Monk]? Why would a [Monk] live in a mountain?”
“Don’t monks live a life of seclusion or whatever? To train their body, mind, and soul?”
“No— [Monks] live in cities and train to win tournaments for the prize money, of course. Some of them get really famous and have big dojos all around the world. I actually met an [Abbot]— the head [Monk]— of a dojo when I was in Astral two months ago. He tried to recruit me to train directly under him, but I said no because it was too expensive. He asked for a thousand gold a month!”
I nodded slowly before placing a hand on my chin. “Uh, what about pursuing spiritual ideals, forsaking material wealth, and rejecting worldly pleasures?”
“What about them?” Noele blinked at me.
“...nevermind.” I cast my gaze back down below the clouds. “That still doesn’t answer my question: what kind of a person would want to live all the way up here? It seems… lonely.”
“The kind of person who just wants to be left alone,” Noele said, shrugging. She paused and turned to me. “The thing is, Amelia, we’re not… exactly looking for a person.”
“We’re not?” I narrowed my eyes.
“Well, I guess he’s a person. But he’s—” She bit her lips, trying to find the right thing to say. I waited, and she closed her eyes. “He’s not human.”
“What is he, then?” I asked. “An elf? A dwarf? A goblin? A gnome?”
“He’s not any of those. He’s…” she trailed off.
I waited, and the blonde girl’s gaze darkened. She slowly raised her head, looking up to the heavens above. It was afternoon— the sun hung high in the clear blue sky. Then she turned back to face me and spoke simply.
“His name is Grat-ra’zun, and he’s an Elder Dragon.”
Grat-ra’zun, Glorious Terror of Mount Arkais, Igniz’s Arcane Champion, and King of the Crimson Flame lay in the darkness, surrounded by his hoard of glistening treasures. Piles of gold and platinum rose to the ceiling, and great artifacts littered the ground like a precious carpet. His massive figure was draped over a bed of rubies and diamonds, unmoving beyond the gentle rising and falling of his chest from his breathing. He had been in slumber for the last ten years, undisturbed by the outside world. And he would have slept for another hundred years if an alarm didn’t blare in his mind.
“Hmph?” The dragon raised his massive head as his slit-like pupils darted around the room. “What is this? What is that grating sound?”
He roared, and the chamber shook. A pile of coins crashed to the floor as he spread his majestic wings wide. The dust coating his crimson scales blew off him. He rose a hundred feet, standing on two legs to reveal a hulking body. Flexing his short clawed arms, he breathed a blast of dark red flames into the ceiling.
“Who dares wake me from my slumber!” he bellowed. But the sound didn’t dissipate. It rang constantly, the only thing he could hear. Then he blinked as the realization settled in. “Oh, that’s that alarm spell I’d set in case anyone intruded into my lair.”
For a moment, he stood there in silence… apart from the ringing in his ears. Then he roared once again.
“WHO DARES INTRUDE INTO MY LAIR!”
With a flick of a clawed finger, he dismissed the alarm spell and pulled up a scrying spell instead. An ethereal image flashed before him as he huffed, smoke puffing from his nostrils.
“Did a stray yeti wander in again? I could’ve sworn I sealed the entrance with an obfuscation spell before I went to sleep. Or, wait— was it a death barrier?”
His memory was foggy— the last time he was awake, he’d only briefly got up from his slumber to greet that [Hero] from another world. Before that, he’d only gotten fifty years of sleep, so he’d fallen straight back into his slumber after the meeting was over with.
He might’ve set up an obfuscation spell, or he might’ve set up a death barrier. He might’ve neither, employing a group of orcs to guard the entrance instead. Grat-ra’zun didn’t know. Shaking his head, he waited for the image to fully form.
“If it’s those cursed wyverns coming back for revenge after I killed their boss, I will slaughter them to the very last this time. This is why you should never show mercy to those foolish beasts…” he murmured.
But Grat-ra’zun was off on all marks. As it turned out, not only did he set up an obfuscation spell around his cave, he’d also set up a death barrier at the same time slightly further into the cavern. A double layer of protection. The first had just been breached, although the second was still active. Also, it was neither a stray monster nor a flock of wyverns invading his lair. It was—
“Hmph, adventurers?” the Elder Dragon harrumphed as he saw the two humans standing right at the entrance of the cave. “They’re probably here for my treasures, then. Damn pests. This is going to be a lot more annoying than I thought.”
This wasn’t the first time a group of adventurers came to his lair for his artifacts. But this was odd. The last time around, they’d come with an entire army. A thousand adventurers, all ranging from B-ranked to S-ranked. Grat-ra’zun killed them all, of course. However, he still had to relocate his lair because it meant the humans now knew where he lived. And that was the most troublesome part.
Like cockroaches. Just finding one here meant there was an infestation. But the dragon frowned. “If there’s only two of them here, that means they’re probably a scouting group. Maybe I can dispose of them quietly without moving lairs…”
He watched as the two humans argued with each other. One of them— a blonde woman— pointed into the dark corridor, hands trembling. But the other— a brown-haired woman dressed in alien clothing— just shrugged and walked forward. Grat-ra’zun peered into the glowing image, narrowing his eyes.
“Or maybe I don’t have to deal with them at all. That fool is ignoring her companion. She’s going to kill them both when she reaches the death barrier.”
It was an invisible sphere that encapsulated the lair. One which only a high-leveled [Mage] could spot. But the brown-haired human looked like a [Warrior], so she didn’t see that she was walking to her demise. Grat-ra’zun almost pitied her companion.
The blonde human was clearly a [Spellsword] of sorts by the way she was dressed, and she stayed back because she knew that there was something up ahead that was dangerous.But as long as she was a hundred feet from the death barrier, she’d be killed too.
The Elder Dragon lay back down, snorting. “Humans and their hubris…”
He began to drift back to sleep as the scene continued to play out before his gaze. Truth be told, even if these humans were after his hoard, he still felt bad for killing them. He found no enjoyment in taking another’s life, be it an insect or even another dragon. But such was the way of the world.
His vision darkened as the brown-haired human reached the edge of the death barrier. Her companion protested, shouting in a panic. Still, she stepped forward, ignoring the voice of reason.
“May your souls rest in peace with the World System…” Grat-ra’zun whispered as sleep settled in.
And the brown-haired human continued walking forward. The blonde human stared in shock. The Elder Dragon blinked, sitting up. He heard a pop go off in his head. Like a bubble had been burst. The death barrier no longer surrounded his lair, the spell dissipating in an instant.
Grat-ra’zun looked on with wide eyes as the brown-haired human ushered her companion in. He heard their voice through his scrying spell.
“I told you it wasn’t dangerous. Come on, Noele. Let’s find this dragon.”
“That’s…” Noele started. Then she threw her hands in the air exasperatedly. “Why am I even surprised anymore?”
And the Elder Dragon was left sitting speechless in his lair.
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